St. Helens girls' hoops off to a hot start
A year ago, St. Helens head coach Michael Fendall and the St. Helens girls' basketball team pulled a 180-degree turn, winning 11 games including five Northwest Oregon Conference contests and nearly made the Class 5A playoffs.
It was a welcomed role reversal, going from doormat to respectable contender, from shoo-in walkover to a team that split league games with five different schools. Fendall, in his first year at the helm, helped rewrite the program's history that frankly was full of ups and downs when it comes to girls' hoops.
For an encore, Fendall and the Lions are trying to one-up themselves. So far, in his sophomore campaign, the head coach couldn't have asked for much more.
St. Helens has stormed out to a 7-1 record in non-league play, relying on the potent inside-out combination of senior star guard Madison Holm and junior post Jean Gartman and the improved play of the roster as a whole.
Holm is St. Helens' best player, Fendall said, and one of the top players in the state regardless of class or classification in his humble opinion. The four-year letterman can score inside or outside, sets the tone defensively, can guard any position on the floor and averages 20 points per game.
"She brings it all for us in every way," Fendall said. "She's a great leader who's been doing this a long time. She's a rare player out there for sure."
Gartman is a 6-foot-2 transfer from Rainier High School. When she joined the Lions last summer, Fendall said it was clear early on that Gartman was the sort of post St. Helens hasn't had on its roster in quite some time. Gartman is mobile, strong, skilled and plays up to her size inside. She competes on both ends of the floor and Fendall believes Gartman has a lot of room to grow as a player. Gartman has been a true boon for the Lions, a gifted addition the school isn't accustomed to receiving from outside the community.
"If she spends some more time in the gym, she can be a dominant player," Fendall said. "Being out at St. Helens I never really expected people to transfer in or out. You're not really in a hub of schools. I figured, for most of these girls, there was really nowhere else to go. But when (Gartman) came in, it was definitely welcomed."
Junior wing Madison Blazek enters her third year on the varsity level. She's a 5-foot-10 forward who is athletic, smart on the defensive end, especially within the team defense concept. Blazek is a player the Lion coaching staff is trying to coax into being more assertive and aggressive overall, particularly on offense. She has the talent and the skills, Fendall said, the staff just wants her to impose them on the opponent on a more consistent basis.
Junior point guard Maria Reardon "has really improved" since last year, Fendall said. Her shooting and ballhandling are greatly enhanced. Reardon is an aggressive player who plays with a lot of good emotion and spirit on the floor. Sophomore Sara Vanderwerf won a starting spot in the backcourt after playing primarily on the junior varsity team last season.
St. Helens hasn't finished a season with a .500 record in nearly 15 years, maybe more. This current Lion iteration is well on its way toward bucking that trend. The NWOC is stacked. Wilsonville and La Salle are two of the best teams in the state, squads that knocked off 6A titans Benson and Mountainside in non-league action. La Salle won the state championship last year and the Falcons are smacking people again this winter. There is a "gap" from La Salle and Wilsonville to the rest of the league, Fendall explained, but the scrap for the conference's final two automatic playoff bids will be a true "battle". St. Helens will be firmly in the postseason mix with Hillsboro and Putnam. The goal, after losing its final seven league games in 2018-19, is to end the year on a much stronger note, hopefully on a winning streak of sorts that sends St. Helens on with a winning record and a playoff bid.
St. Helens closes out the non-league slate with a home contest against The Dalles before opening NWOC slate with four straight road games at Wilsonville, Scappoose, Parkrose and Hillsboro over the next weeks.
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